Thursday, April 12, 2007

"Earl never wears a sombrero.": NBC's Thursday comedies

(Normally, I'd cover these four separately, but Libby thinks it'll be OK if I post a compendium just this once. Let me know what you think.)

I don't think there's a better-programmed night of television than NBC's Thursday night. Everything flows so well into everything else, and it's easy to sit down and just watch a whole night of TV without really even noticing the time slip by. Here's hoping that NBC keeps this lineup next season (or something very close to it). This is a better lineup than anything NBC had in the 90s (when the lineup was ruined every time by at least one bad or mediocre show) and almost the equal of the original 80s Thursday lineup that sent the network to the dominance it enjoyed in that decade and the 90s.

My Name Is Earl is a great show to start off the evening. It's not the best show out of the four, but it's a good way to ease into a night of laughs, and it always has some solid joke work. I'm not as big a fan of the episodes that follow the formula anymore (and it really seems like the writers aren't either as they've gone out of their way to avoid "Earl crosses something off the list" episodes all season long -- and the show's been better for it!), but this was about as good as those episodes get, as it somehow turned the story of Earl trying to make up to a TV journalist whom he had ruined the broadcasts of into a story about Randy trying to find his own way to be like his brother (and the ending gag -- while completely predictable -- was still pretty funny).

By far my favorite thing about the episode was Randy trying to be the anti-Earl. I've long thought that a sort of "flip side" show to Earl, where a guy who was always really nice decides to become a jerk after he's pushed too far, would be kind of fun, and this episode offered up Randy in a sombrero, invading the news station, wearing the right clothes so just his head showed up floating around on the weather map and farting up a storm in Earl's hotel room. But I also liked the extensive flashbacks to Earl and Randy disrupting the news show (complete with a bear suit of all things) and Catalina practicing her American accent (she's been doing her accent so long that it's easy to forget Nadine Velazquez is a Chicago native).

All in all, Earl is never my favorite of the night, but it's never less than a pleasant prelude to the things to come, and I found this episode to be one of their better ones that focused on the central formula of the show. Still, here's hoping they have a little more unformulaic freestyling later this season.

I thought The Office had one of the best episodes of this season as well tonight. It didn't start out as well as it might have (Michael's general annoyingness at the warehouse safety meeting felt a little forced), but it quickly grew into the best sort of workplace farce, a genre the show works well within. The ending might have felt a little strained (what with Michael apparently not knowing that a bouncy castle wouldn't be enough to break a fall that would kill him), but everything building up to it was good.

The Office's best episodes often come when Michael takes it upon himself to train his employees in one way or another, and his long, bizarre safety training grew on me (like I said, I wasn't as fond of the warehouse scenes). But I liked the betting subplot most of all -- particularly the workers collecting on Kelly's long, long monologue about how to use Netflix and the number of romantic comedies she would mention. And I found Dwight, who's often the least of the show's players for me, mostly bearable in this episode. I also liked that Andy came back with a minimum of fuss and re-integrated into the ensemble quickly and believably.

When The Office is hitting, it's hard to think of much to say about it critically. I thought tonight's episode was a fine example of the show at its best. I realize that these largely plotless episodes aren't everyone's cup of tea, but I sort of think they're increasingly the reason to watch the show, and I hope that much of next season gets away from the increasingly serialized nature of the show and returns to workplace hijinks.

30 Rock wasn't as funny as it usually is, but it was still ridiculously funny, which gives you an idea of how on the show can be when it's on. It was a real treat to see the dryly wonderful Emily Mortimer show up as Jack's new love interest, and I liked the weird love triangle that developed around the Floydster, but I felt the episode had a lot of stuff that just wasn't as strong as it could have been. The Tracy Jordan as Thomas Jefferson subplot, for instance, was fitfully amusing, but didn't know quite what it wanted to be (since it was torn between Tracy really wanting this movie to be a serious project and showing the wackiness of the whole set-up -- maybe I know too much about Oscarbait at this point, but it just wasn't Oscarbait-y ENOUGH, though I loved the low-rent production values and whatever the name of Jefferson's horse was).

Still, there was plenty of great stuff in the episode, including Jack wanting to be a horse (and a weird obsession with horses overall in the episode) and Liz being in a good mood thanks to her new boyfriend (the great montage of their budding relationship was a lot of fun). I also liked the continued callbacks to the Rockefeller Center Salute to Fireworks and Rip Torn in general, a great inside gag, considering that he was in the last great inside-showbiz sitcom, The Larry Sanders Show.

But, hey, I can handle a slightly off episode when a show has given me as many laughs as 30 Rock has this season. And I was glad to see Judah Friedlander get so much to do. (Though was Jenna in this episode at all? I don't remember her and don't see her in my notes. That would make two weeks in a row without her.) And I'd be willing to watch a completely jokeless episode just to see Kenneth do something weird. My infatuation knows no bounds, people. Perhaps it's just the letdown from knowing that this show will be back next season (like when you feel a bit sad after Christmas or your birthday), and I'm sure next week will be a return to form.

Meanwhile, Scrubs stretched the Nurse Roberts' death storyline out over another episode. Just like Earl is the perfect way to start the evening, Scrubs seems like the best way to close it out. The show has regained much of its heart, even if the jokes aren't quite what they were in earlier seasons. Still, the episode made a few steps forward in the story (Elliott declaring her love for Keith, for instance), and the central device of the various hospital workers taking Nurse Roberts' advice (as delivered by her preacher) to heart wasn't bad.

And, hey, that funeral scene hit a whole bunch of different emotions -- the sorts you might not expect to see in a funeral scene.

I don't have a lot else to say about Scrubs, but it's nice to have the show back. It may not be at the level of strength it had in its first few seasons, but it's a consistent pleasure now, and that's more than enough.

What was your favorite?

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